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So I was a counselor at a summer camp.
Not the kind of camp you see in the movies. It was on an island; stranger still, an island smack in the middle of Boston Harbor. In the nineteenth century it had been an orphanage. There was a quadrangle of old brick buildings, athletic fields, patches of woods, tidal swamp. There was a ropes course and a nature trail and a campfire circle and even a dock with sailboats and canoes. Though no swimming. You can’t have kids swimming in Boston. The summer I worked there three corpses washed up on the beach: one whole, one decapitated, one just a human torso, headless, armless, an oblong chunk of flesh.
[private]It was a charity camp, of the Fresh Air Fund variety: our kids came from the joyless telephone-wire blocks, the broken glass streetcorners, the squalling asphalt parks of Roxbury, Dorchester, Quincy, Bunker Hill. They rode the ferry carrying corner deli subs in wax paper and Super Fizz Cherry Blast, Golden Krust meat patties and Champagne Cola; they brought boom boxes and yesterday’s tabloids with photographs of drive-by victims they’d known from around the way, and teddy bears, and Supersoakers, and asthma inhalers. Monday mornings they descended from the camp ferry and swept across the island in a cacophonous wave, like Vikings; we trailed behind with first-aid kits, tubs of sunblock, bottles of DEET, picking up debris, nursing the trampled and maimed. Every so often we came across a pistol, its serial number filed away, tossed in the bushes or drowned in a toilet tank.
These children—because they were still children, at twelve, thirteen, even fourteen, with children’s faces staring out of startlingly long-limbed bodies—drew you in, so that you lived among them, sharing their rituals, their taboos, the sweet oppressive stink of young bodies shoved together, and then expelled you, a pathetic interloper, with wry disgust. You could see it in the faces of the replacement counselors, who came nearly every week: beatific joy, as the game proceeded, the shrieks of laughter, the hollers, the pretend-back-of-the-hand kisses and slaps on the ass, and then, at dinnertime, red-eyed, thin-lipped rage, as they sat deserted at the far end of the cafeteria table, bewildered, insulted, spiritually mauled. As often as not they’d be on the special Tuesday midnight ferry that hauled our worst offenders back to Juvenile Justice and summer school. There was no shame in leaving; really it was a matter of luck. Who among us could have withstood the pyromaniac lighting up his bunkmate’s sleeping bag three nights in a row, the cabal who spraypainted 187 All Cops across the front of the gym, the eleven-year-old suicide case who rubbed poison ivy across her bleeding wrists and ankles? At night we huddled in our cells and ate through our stashes of chocolate and Xanax, waiting for the scream, the explosion, the shattering windowpanes, that would indicate our clocks had run out, and it was time to flee: back to our parents’ lazy sprinklers, their decomposing patio furniture and six o’clock rations of Chardonnay.
No one worked there because they needed the money. We could have gone to Maine, New Hampshire, the Poconos—Ramapo, Katahdin, Bide-a-Wee—and made three or four thousand a summer, plus tips. The staff ran high in Ivy League degrees, plus a sprinkling of Oberlins, Amhersts, Haverfords and Bates’. Millions of dollars, collectively, had funded our upbringings, our delicate educations; we tended toward battered L.L. Bean backpacks and Teva sandals, thrift store t-shirts and ratty cutoffs, noserings and pretend dreadlocks. We were a renewable resource, like bamboo: there were always more where we came from.
We weren’t saints; we were unknowing children, too; trying to locate ourselves in the shifting sands of theory and guilt, and we thought, what better place to start than with pain, someone else’s pain, the pain of the dispossessed? It was a black thing and we wouldn’t understand, but we were optimists, weaned on Eyes On The Prize; we were used to obstacles miraculously dissolving in telegenic time: an hour-long documentary, a two-page application essay. Was it guilt, naked ambition, an excess of good intentions? No, it was an excess of love. Love pooled under our tongues and collected like calcium deposits beneath our fingernails. Overestimated, overvalued, overresourced, we sensed the deficit, and offered up our bodies as collateral.
Who was I, in particular? I have a vague memory of my father sailing in the 1984 Solomons Island regatta, his bare, tanned back turned away from me, the sun riffling his bleached hair. I loved ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ but never bought another album after The Joshua Tree. My parents’ house in Sagoponack had an acre of lawn that sloped down to the water. I lost my virginity to Adele Saperstein at Model UN camp in 1988.
Or was that me, or was that a dream I had? I sometimes wonder if I dreamed my entire slot-fitting childhood. Does it matter to you, one way or another? Would an answer make it hurt any less?
Nelson Quang-Torres—he was there too, bright as a flare in a basement full of old newspapers. He was from Lexington by way of J.P; he’d done a few years of community college, and had once danced with Madonna, he claimed, at a nightclub in New York, and she’d offered him a backup spot on the Vogue tour, but he was fifteen, in the city without his parents’ permission, and had to turn it down.
Fuck me, he had a habit of saying, at the least provocation. In front of the kids, in front of Melissa, the camp director. It didn’t matter. He was possessed of what he himself called the inherent inner fabulous; all of a piece with the immaculate Nikes and the matching headband coiled around a mop of tight shiny curls like a planter, the lisp and the flick-of-the-wrist model wave, the falsetto RuPaul imitation. It’s your birthday, go crazy, go crazy. He directed the talent show at the end of each three-week term: a wild affair, with colored lights, deafening sound, and a catwalk, where girls barely in their teens strutted in dresses made of feathers, tape, and heavy-duty tinfoil.
In those days I hadn’t realized I would never overcome my revulsion to smoking long enough to develop a habit. Even toward the end of the week I always had a nearly full pack of Parliaments and a lighter that worked. They weren’t menthols, he always complained, but he was too broke to care. In the evenings, the sunset softening the sky over Boston to a child’s smeared pastels, we were allowed a fifteen-minute break on the beach between dinner and Evening Activities, while the overnight kids returned to their cabins to smoke their own cigarettes, and devise new forms, and venues, of havoc.
We got to get out of here, he was saying, that particular Thursday. Saturday was our day off, and we could leave the island Friday early evening, if we wanted to. But no one ever did. Friday night we had encounter sessions; we sorted through our biases and agonized over our problem campers. It was team-building, tearful, motivational, not required but required. He hated it. But he couldn’t leave the island by himself.
Troyer, he said, Troyer gave me the keys to his car. He’s away for the week. Grandmother’s funeral.
So tomorrow’s Friday, baby. Time to make something happen. My moms sent me a hundred bucks for my birthday. I’ve been sitting on that cash for weeks. We ought to go down to J.P., have some decent food, go to a club. Score some weed. Not that skunky homegrown shit Julia brought down from Vermont. I’m talking hydroponic.
He lit a new cigarette from the tip of the last and stood up, shucking his shoes. Check it out, he said, clasping his palms together above his head, tucking his right foot against his left thigh. Tree pose. He stood there for a full minute, his cigarette flaring at the corner of his mouth.
Nelson, I said, if Troyer finds out you borrowed his car —
Shit, if he cared so much, why’d he give me the keys?
Whatever, he said, staring straight ahead. Come with me or don’t. You white people give me the creeps.
What I do in life, what I did in life, is sit at a desk in an office building and watch numbers flickering across an enormous flat monitor and talk on the telephone. I am, I was, director of capital projects for a mid-size medical equipment company. A company you would never hear of in ordinary circumstances. We make, that is to say we paid others to make, components of artificial joints: hips, knees, elbows. We have squadrons of materials specialists and quality control engineers all over the world. And in retrospect we should have known that the price was too low, that a silicate molding manufactured in a town no one could find on a map in Shandong Province couldn’t possibly stand the weight of two titanium joints rotating over and over, over years, in an artificial hip, though all the tests came out fine. They were rigged, those tests. Someone in the Chinese company paid off someone in Singapore who paid off someone in Hyderabad who filled out the paperwork from the testing company, and now we’re on the front page of every business section in the world, and my former boss, my CEO, has been photographed walking into federal court, shielding his face with an umbrella I bought for him as a joke on a business trip to Montreal. Merde! Il pleut, it says. He doesn’t speak French.
In the office, all around me, people are packing cartons, throwing out reams of unused stationery, and using the mail carts to carry off potted plants and flat-screen monitors and expensive recessed lighting components. I hear the maintenance staff are being paid fifty bucks a pop to look the other way if you want to take your ergonomic office chair as a souvenir. I’m the only one still working at my cubicle, noise-reduction headphones clamped over my ears, typing this. My severance check sits next to me on my desk. If I don’t cash it in the next hour or two, it may bounce.
THE SOURCE OF ALL PATHOS
There was the girl who cracked her gum as she spoke, as a kind of punctuation; the boy who turned and sprinted away whenever he saw me, a flash of knobby knees and a Pistons jersey ballooning away from his skinny frame. The girls who spent all their time on the dormitory steps, braiding and rebraiding one anothers’ hair; the boys clustered under the ancient oak tree at the far end of the soccer field, trading contraband copies of Hustler smuggled in their sleeping bags. The ones who cried for their mothers at three-thirty in the morning.
Call her Tanya, she whose real name has been excised from my memory, who stood a head above the rest, who was so matchstick thin her body seemed to bend light around it. She was always sucking on the tiny wooden spoons that came attached to the paper cups of ice cream in dining hall. And she never spoke to any of the counselors or the staff. No one was sure what cabin she belonged to. At every activity—capture-the-flag, kickball, pottery, scavenger hunt—she stood on the sidelines and watched, a silent referee, an oracle.
In those days, before liability insurance forbade it, we did trust falls: forcing them to stand, blindfolded, on the edge of a picnic table, and fall backward, arms folded King Tut style, into the waiting arms of their cabinmates. Even the short, fat boys, not even five feet tall, who had the gravitational density of cannonballs: we called in the cooks from the cafeteria, six footers, former nightclub bouncers, as reinforcements. Everyone fell, everyone got caught. It was the Thompson Island rule. When it was my turn I nearly choked from fear, seeing stars beneath the bandanna, and passed out on the way down, and came to on my side, breathing into a paper bag. And I was seized with the belief that my upbringing fell away from me, inadequate, incommensurate with this world
You all right? Tanya asked. You OK?
I squinted up at her, in silhouette, against the fluorescent glare of an overcast summer sky. With the little spoon jutting away from her mouth she looked like some kind of icon, like a returning warrior, toothpick in gritted teeth. I wondered if she might kick me in the stomach to get my back upright. Walk it off.
I guess I was just too heavy, I said. Should’ve gotten backup.
No, they caught you, she said. You just had your eyes closed and didn’t believe it. F’you don’t believe you’re gonna get caught nobody can’t do nothing for you. You counselors, you’re supposed to know that shit.
Don’t say shit, I said, automatically.
With great delicacy she removed the spoon, flicked it into the bushes, and walked away.
This ferry is crossing the churning oily waters of Boston Harbor, speckled with black ducks, who float with only their long necks and slender needle-like heads above the surface, and it is crossing, too, out of the the luminous confines of our good intentions, back into history, to the pier where T.J. Hales’s restaurant sells fried clams and onion rings to the pimply, close-cropped, creamy white-skinned teenagers of South Boston, whose parents—perhaps grandparents, the generations here are short and swift—fought pitched battles to keep the children of Dorchester and Roxbury from being bused to their schools. That our summer camp has its designated pier and private ferry here is a matter of geographic necessity, involving a generous yearly donation for the upkeep for the Donal O’Reilly Memorial, Donal O’Reilly being the very same state assemblyman who vowed to lie down across the path of any schoolbus crossing L Street in 1971. Needless to say, we rope our charges tightly together going to and from the boat, in midday, with police cruisers nearby, and we don’t often come or go at night, not even ourselves, myself, I who have sandy brown hair and a few dark freckles on the bridge of my nose, and could pass for Irish until I open my mouth. When we finally reach the pier it’s seven forty-five, the sunset dissolving to a sickly pinkish twilight, and the story has shifted firmly into the present tense, to indicate a change in mood as well as history, judging from the stonefaced stares of the boys clustered around Hales’s window as we walk up the ramp and onto the sidewalk, looking for Troyer’s old Volvo.
Fucking European cars, Nelson says. You know how to drive one of these things?
I tell him no. My family, my supposed family, drives Subarus till the undercarriages rust out. It’s a point of pride. Or at least we ought to. We should have some distinguishing memorable detail.
Nelson and I slide into our seats, he on the driver’s side, reluctantly. It can’t be that difficult, he says, gripping the stickshift, which refuses to move into reverse. One, two, three, four, five: he tests them all. The radio wails the third chorus of Browneyed Girl; I shut it off, to help him concentrate. The pier, strangely quiet, smells of strawberry lip gloss, briny harbor air, and spilled Velveeta. For a moment, apropos of nothing, I think, I love America.
Hey, a voice says, speaking through the open window on my side. See that little grip underneath? Pull up on that thing.
There are four or five or them, surrounding us, on both sides of the car; we see them at waist level: the elastic bands of their Notre Dame basketball shorts, their ruddy hands with the tiny four-leaf clovers tattooed between thumb and forefinger. The one leaning in has a Caesar-style haircut, a gold tooth on the left side, and a friendly, skeptical grin.
Hey, Jimmy, one of his friends calls out, how come you know so much about Jap cars?
I don’t. But I guess I know more than this spick does.
Nelson laughs. I don’t see his face; I couldn’t look at him in the face. But he laughs as if at the entire world’s expense. Man, he says, can’t you do better than that? Spanish Person In Charge?
Get the fuck out of here, faggot, he says. And take your faggot friend with you. We don’t like your kind in Southie.
Oh yeah? Nelson says. What kind do you like?
THE PRESENT PERFECT
They are chasing us out of South Boston, on Farragut and roaring down Broadway and out Summer Street past the piers and the Harpoon brewery and the convention center, in a Jeep and another car behind that, eight of them or ten, bottles bouncing off the roof, chunks of concrete and boomerangs of rebar punching holes in the rear window. They have baseball bats and broken malt liquor bottles and who knows what else, a gun or two, a can of gasoline and a lighter, a roll of duct tape? Keep your fucking head down, Nelson screams, and guns through one red light after another. The roads are strangely deserted: not a cop, not a passerby. It’s a Friday night in Boston, and no one there to see. Now you know what my life is like every goddamned day, Nelson is shouting. Even now he’s still shouting. And they are still chasing us. My sphincter seized into a fist, my hands scrabbling at the dashboard for something to hold on to. It’s still happening, it’s not allowed to be over. To allow it to be over, to end the suspense, to enter the unbearable future, to forget it, to blot it out of memory again: isn’t there another way? Every story doesn’t need an ending. They are chasing us out of South Boston, left on Farragut, left on Broadway, right on Summer, acting out their part in an ancient ritual, the chasing of The Faggot and the The Faggot’s Friend. Every story needs a victim, every story needs a sacrifice, and here we are.
We lost them by the time we passed South Street Station, but just to be sure Nelson swung three sharp rights in a row. A circle, he said, through clenched teeth, that’s how you throw anyone off, get back on the main road when they least expect it. Satisfied, finally, he turned onto the Mass Pike ramp, and took us flying through downtown, headed west, the office blocks and convention hotels suddenly as enormous and bizarre to me as illustrations from a comic book. The seatbelt had dug itself into my left armpit; I pulled it away, gently. Slowly sensation returned to my hands and feet.
Should we call the cops?
He turned and skidded across two lanes of traffic to make the Tremont exit.
Where are we going?
Home, he said.
We turned onto a street of white clapboard rowhouses, turned a sallow yellow beneath the streetlamps. Here and there a crumbling brick apartment building, a school building behind caged windows and a cyclone fence. Boys in long white t-shirts turning lazy circles on freestyle bicycles, the handlebars of welded shiny chain. Lechonera, Pastelleria, Muebles, Comida China, Check Cashing. My eyeballs were dry and sandy around the edges; I was aware of them rotating in their sockets, newly-fashioned orbs, as if I’d been issued a replacement pair.
Nelson fiddled with the radio knob until he found an R&B station. Don’t. Go. Chasing waterfalls, he sang under his breath, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to. All right, he said, that song’s over already. He switched to a college station, and the car filled with a long, low, stretched note on the bass, and Lou Reed intoning, solemnly, Jackie is just speeding away, thought she was James Dean for a day. Then I guess she had to crash. Valium would have helped that dash. I said hey, baby—
I reached over and switched it off.
Viejo J.P., he said. Egleston Square. You never been down here? The island bus does pickups over at Hennigan. Look, that’s the playground where I used to hang out. My abuela owned a house down that corner till my dad died and she had to sell it. You should be taking notes, man. His hands danced a beat against the steering wheel. The autobiography of a genuine colored person.
In the center of it all, at the corner of Columbus and Washington, he parked outside a bodega and returned with a pint of Captain Morgan’s in a brown paper bag. We passed it back and forth in silence.
I got a friend from here who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, he said, finally.
He says, just learn to speak like they do, all polite and whiny, you know what I mean, kind of uptight? And they just treat you like they’ve known you all they lives. Gays too. It’s so boring they’re desperate for whoever they can get. I’m going to move out there in September. There’s one club in the whole town and they need a DJ.
Good for you, I said. At least you have a plan.
What could I have been thinking about at this moment other than my own future? And how is it possible, you may ask, for a character such as I, pastless wonder? How is it that I could have been wishing my own death instead?
On the East Coast shit’s just too old. Isn’t that what they say about all those people out on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket? It’s like they get transparent. Like they been bleached or something. All going to the same schools, same clubs, same parties, same people, for like, four hundred years? Swear to god, it happens to everybody eventually. Dominicans too. My mother, my tios. They’ve all been here since the Fifties, practically. They get to looking kind of inbred, you know what I mean? Everyone’s all wrapped up in everyone else’s drama. It’s the Hatfields and the McCoys all over again. Used to be I knew everybody that walked down this block. Thing was, I went to college, and all this shit happened had nothing to do with me. My homeboy Augustín got a married girl pregnant and her husband came after him with a machete. Old school shit. I came back and people looked at me like I was a ghost, man. It’s like, you don’t stick around, you’re not even alive anymore. Know what I’m saying?
He turned and looked at me.
Hey, what’s up with you, anyway? I don’t even know nothing about where you’re from.
It’s like you said. I swigged from the bottle and belched out the sugary-fiery taste of the rum. I’ve been bleaching so long, I turned invisible. I don’t even remember.
He pursed his lips, as if he was about to laugh, and pounded a fist on the steering wheel, shaking his head.
You really think you can get away with that? You think you’re the only one who wishes it were that easy?
What do you mean?
What I mean is, he said, yo, if you really want to disappear, genealogically speaking, you should get yourself a girlfriend who looks like me. Chinese and Jamaican, Korean and Brazilian, some shit like that. That way one of you will fit in almost anywhere. And your kids, man, they’ll just look like the future. Like that golf guy, what’s his name, Tiger Woods?
Maybe you’re right, I said. But that’s not what I meant.
No, he said, I understand what you meant.
I know he did. Wherever he is, he still does. We both do.
WE PAUSE FOR A COMMERCIAL INTERRUPTION
Around this time—‘95, ’96, the milky haze of my post-adolescence, substanceless as the foam of a skinny cappuccino—Volkswagen had a commercial for its New Beetle: If you sold your soul in the Eighties, here’s your chance to buy it back. We sneered, of course, as our parents reached out for them, slack-faced, drop-jawed, like children clutching balloon animals at the circus. The commodification of dissent, we called it.What was there to worry about, once you understood the world was only the play of signifiers? It was a matter of moving the frame slightly to one side: a hundred-dollar laptop and a little venture capital for the impoverished cotton farmers in Mali. Change is just a byproduct of making money, someone said. It doesn’t have to be such a struggle anymore.
Were we, as the magazines said, fundamentally slack, allergic to seriousness? Or were we seduced by our own metaphors: the neverending network, the flat world, god forgive us, the tipping point, the killer app? It doesn’t matter now. By the time we saw ourselves whole we had useless graduate degrees, fortunes on paper, closets full of embarrassing wedding presents. Money was the byproduct of making money, and the world was the size of a two bedroom, one-and-a-half bath apartment, PK VWS, EIK.
The hush that descends on the offices of a bankrupt company—the hum of one last vacuum cleaner, the screech of a razor blade chiseling a logo into little white shavings—is not the silence of the stage strewn with bodies at the end of Hamlet: not the screams of catharsis, but the grey noise of an imploded abstraction. Not life, but an interrupted, half-tumescent masturbatory fantasy of life; the abrupt ending to a bourgeois dreamtime. Who feels sorry for the pasty office worker, trudging back to his car with his carton of dusty photo frames and stained coffee mugs? Who should feel sorry? And what is a confession that goes on too long other than an act of self-annihilation, a way of making forgiveness impossible?
That we did make it across the bridge:
That we slammed into a concrete piling, did a header into the Inner Harbor;
That the Southie boys caught up with us, left us shit-kicked, concussed, bleeding from the mouths and ears;
Who’s to say I never wished for these things to happen?
But of course that’s the way with us: all our losses are imaginary. It was Nelson, not me, who was fired, when Troyer returned, and refused to believe the car had been vandalized where it sat; Nelson who forgot and refilled the tank with unleaded instead of diesel, so that it backfired and stalled, and gave him away; and then sat silently, refusing to tell the story, refusing to let me tell the story.
Every story has a scapegoat. And every story has a martyr. And, because this is an American story, as we all know, they are always, always, one and the same.
MISSION STATEMENT (FINAL DRAFT)
We weren’t saints; we were children, too; trying to locate ourselves in the shifting sands of theory and guilt, and we thought, what better place to start than pain, someone else’s pain, the pain of the dispossessed, but the truth was that all that was a distraction, a youthful dalliance, and the serious business was already ticking in our throats. We were children of the clock and of the deadline. Even the wealthiest, the most blue-blooded and trust-funded among us understood those rules. You could tattoo your face; declare yourself transgendered; become an anarchist or a Zapatista; get arrested with a truckful of cocaine; spend a year meditating in a locked room in Bhutan; sleep with prostitutes in Ciudad Juarez; and still at the magic hour, at twenty-two or twenty-five or at the outermost limit, thirty, your life would resume as if it had never been interrupted. Money flew upward, and caught us in its traps.
I was dissolved, but only for a time; I was dissolved and reconstituted, like Kool-Aid, in a more concentrated form.
I FRIEND YOU
There’s a Thompson Island counselor alumni group on Facebook, now, of course. We have among us scores of advanced degrees and fashionably scruffy toddlers. We live in Mountainview and Cambridge and Tokyo and Carroll Gardens. We teach at prep schools; we are endocrinologists; we are partners at Debevoise; we own organic farms outside Woodstock; we are married to partners at Debevoise and sit on the board of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
Isn’t it amazing!!! How much time has passed!!!
I think, again, of the children, of my charges on that unfortunate island. I think of their kneelength t-shirts stained with Kool-aid and mayonnaise. I think of their glowing skin in all its glorious shades, of their pudgy hands raised to catch me when I turned my back, crossed my arms over my chest, and toppled over. I don’t remember their names. It’s too long now, and there were too many of them. Why is it that we can never answer, truly, for the sources of our pain? I hope they survived. Who’s to say I didn’t wish they could bring me back to life, to bring blood back into my veins? I’ve said enough. I’ve said enough. I’ve said enough. I hope they forgive me for loving them.[/private]